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After Years Of Low Voter Turnout Among Doctors, They're Mobilizing And Helping Florida Voters Get Registered

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There's a fierce competition underway in Florida and it's not the presidential election — but it is related. It includes medical school students like Vishnu Muppala and Yumiko Nakamura, who are both in their fourth year.

Muppala studies at Florida Atlantic University's college of medicine, and Nakamura at the University of Florida's medical school.

"I don’t want to say UF has a pretty solid lead," Nakamura said, teasing her competitor. Muppala laughed. "I feel like there’s a technical issue at Florida Atlantic University, somehow dropped off..." Muppala replied.

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The game is who can register more voters, like students on their campuses and at their health clinics or people waiting in line to get a COVID-19 test.

Today, Oct. 5, is the last day for voters to register in several states including Florida.

The medical school students are helping through QR codes that they've been putting up publicly so people can scan them, similar to barcodes, with their phones and then register. Each medical school in Florida has its own QR code, so that's how they'll find out how many people signed up through each school.

Muppala’s taking it seriously, he added, as long as he’s the winner.

"If I'm not winning I'm just going to go ahead and say it doesn't matter, we're all winners," he joked. "If I win it's a really big deal and I'm going to make a big deal about it, but if I didn't win..."

"It's just for fun," they both added.

The competition may be fun, but it has a serious goal: It's part of a national effort to show people that voting is just as important for public health as having access to healthy food or medical care. They're both student leaders on the national leadership team for Vote Health 2020, a national campaign from health professionals who want more patients to vote.

"Voting is also a social determinant of health," Muppala said. "We talk about limited transportation, food resources, individual choices people make. Everything that people do that affects their daily health — voting is actually one of the things that functions in very much the same way. So people who are civically engaged, they have higher levels of self reported health outcomes. So as health care professionals, as medical students, it is another way we can address people's health status."

Nakamura points to studies that suggest people who have higher levels of health tend to be more electorally represented.

"The people who are the most disempowered in terms of their health, maybe who have a disability or are suffering from mental health issues, they're the ones that are least represented. And that's important because health policies at the end of the day tend to impact that group of people more," Nakamura said.

Research shows even doctors don’t vote enough, so Vote Health 2020's outreach is also focused on boosting turnout among healthcare professionals.

"So if they're planning on voting on on Election Day, but they are in the hospital, well, who is going to hold the pager, or who's going to make sure the medical student or the resident or the fellow is able to go vote if they're not able to do it during regular voting hours?" said Saranya Loehrer, a doctor by training and founder of Vote Health 2020.

On the Vote Health 2020 website, there are downloadable flyers showing drawings of voters wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and distancing from others. They also offer virtual presentations on other voting options — including voting by mail and early voting.

"It is making sure that everybody has the right and the ability to vote, and in the context of a pandemic especially, but always, that they can do so as safely as possible," Loehrer said.

Another doctor started a similar effort called Patient Voting, to help hospitalized patients get emergency ballots. Many of these projects are nonpartisan, but some doctors say they’re disappointed with how Republican leaders in Florida and nationally have handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

"You need to vote like your health is at risk, because it is in this election," said Dr. Mona Mangat, an allergist and immunologist in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. She's part of a national left-leaning group called Committee to Protect Medicare. "So I'm doing everything I can to ensure that my patients vote safely. I would like anyone to reach out to their trusted doctor, whoever that might be, to create a voting plan."

Florida’s largest healthcare union, the 1199SEIU, which has endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, also has efforts underway to drive out the vote.

One of its members, Melissa Grier, works in the dietary department at a Broward County hospital.

"Well, I don't just see it on television. I actually live it because I work at the hospital. I have seen the suffering of COVID-19," said Grier, who's registering voters through phone banking and canvassing. She’ll also bring forms to people who can’t leave their homes. "The elderly and help them, and then you will also have sick people or people that just can't get out."

The union is targeting cities like Hialeah, North Miami, Lauderhill and Fort Lauderdale.

"Just because of the high density of Black and brown voters that we’re trying to, to get out," said Jason Morales, the 1199SEIU's South Florida political coordinator. "But that doesn’t mean that that's just our focus. We’re also talking to everyone under the sun who’s a registered voter to make sure that they go out and get out the vote."

Morales is Latino, and he says many of the union’s members are immigrants and people of color. They feel like politicians haven't done much to help them. The only way to change that, he says, is to vote.

Head here for more information on voter registration and voting by mail.